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Much like his allegorical protagonist did for the oppressed prospectors of Pale Rider (1985), director/star Clint Eastwood rode to the rescue when the Hollywood Western genre was at its lowest ebb. Once the notoriously disastrous Heaven's Gate (1980) had made its title synonymous with wretched excess, the major studios wanted nothing to do with sagebrush sagas, and few if any similar projects that could be regarded as significant emerged in theaters through the mid-'80s.
Over his career, Eastwood had known nothing but success with oaters, and he went into the production of Pale Rider regarding the project as a safe gamble. As he declared in 1984 to Michael Henry in Clint Eastwood: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi), "It's not possible that The Outlaw Josey Wales could be the last Western to have been a commercial success. Anyway, aren't the Star Wars movies Westerns transposed into space?"
Eastwood opined to Henry that the Hollywood Western had gone stale by the '60s "probably because the great directors -- Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, John Ford -- were no longer working a lot." With the spaghetti Western cycle that had made him a global superstar having run its course, Eastwood found it time "to analyze the classic Western. You can still talk about sweat and hard work, about the spirit, about love for the land and ecology. And I think you can say all these things in the Western, in the classic mythological form."
As developed by Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, Eastwood's scenarists on The Gauntlet (1977), Pale Rider became a compelling concoction owing obvious debts to Shane (1953) and Eastwood's star-making efforts for Sergio Leone. A small community of tin-panners laboring in Gold Rush-era California is in constant threat of being rousted from their claims by a grasping mining baron (Richard Dysart), who aspires to plumb the land for himself. (As a nod to more contemporary ecological concerns, Dysart's urgency stems from the fact that his excessive hydraulic strip-mining operations on his own property have left the earth nearly barren.)
When the most defiant of the prospectors (Michael Moriarty) is accosted on a supply run by Dysart's thugs, he is aided by lone stranger Eastwood, who enters town astride a pale steed like an apocalyptic horseman from Biblical prophecy. The grateful Moriarty offers Eastwood lodging, a proposal that meets with initial resistance from his widow housemate (Carrie Snodgress). Once Eastwood sits down to dinner revealed in a minister's collar, Snodgress' teenage daughter (Sydney Penny) comes to regard him as the answer to her prayers for deliverance. Dysart, for his part, calls in for deadly reinforcements before the irksome itinerant can instill the on-the-ropes miners with faith.
Commenting on the movie with interviewer Christopher Frayling, Eastwood later said, "Pale Rider is kind of allegorical, more in the High Plains Drifter mode: like that, though he isn't a reincarnation or anything, but he does ride a pale horse like the four horsemen of the apocalypse...It's a classic story of the big guys against the little guys...the corporate mining which ends up in hydraulic mining, they just literally mow the mountains away, you know, the trees and everything...all that was outlawed in California some years ago, and they still do it in Montana and a few places."
Pale Rider has a splendid look, with the Sun Valley, Idaho, locations given vibrancy by Bruce Surtees, the cinematographer who served Eastwood's purposes so well in High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Moriarty, Snodgress and Dysart tackle their roles earnestly and effectively, as does a young Chris Penn as Dysart's smarmy son. The supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces from previous Eastwood films, notably Doug McGrath as a miner who runs tragically afoul of Dysart's heavies and John Russell as the mercenary marshal who shares an unspoken past with the inscrutable preacher.
With a take of better than $20 million in its first ten days of release (on a $6.9 million production cost) and a slate of positive reviews, the front office at Warner Brothers had no cause to regret the green-lighting of Pale Rider. While no major cycle of American Westerns would follow in its wake, the film stood as a vindication of the form and proof of its continuing viability.
Producer/Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack
Production Design: Edward C. Carfagno
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Editing: Joel Cox
Music: Lennie Niehaus
Principal Cast: Clint Eastwood (Preacher), Michael Moriarty (Hull Barret), Carrie Snodgrass (Sarah Wheeler), Chris Penn (Josh LaHood), Richard Dysart (Coy LaHood), Sydney Penny (Megan Wheeler), Richard Kiel (Club), Doug McGrath (Spider Conway), John Russell (Stockburn).
C-116m. Letterboxed Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg